posted November 2, 2010

Poet and Songwriter Visits for Nov. 3 and 4 Veritas Forum Prequel

 Poet and songwriter the Rev. Vito Aiuto of The Welcome Wagon will participate in a series of events scheduled on Wednesday and Thursday, Nov. 3-4, as a prequel to the biennial Veritas Forum in January.

The public is invited.  Admission is free.

Aiuto will be featured during Chapel on Wednesday, Nov. 3, at 10:30 a.m. in Dimnent Memorial Chapel.

He will present "The Sacred and the Creative Process:  Reflections on Ministry and Art Making" on Wednesday, Nov. 3, at 3 p.m. in Fried/Hemenway Auditorium of the Martha Miller Center for Global Communication.  The event will be followed by a panel discussion including Trygve Johnson and Joshua Banner of the campus ministries staff.

An evening of poetry and songs will be presented on Wednesday, Nov. 3, at 7 p.m. in the Fried/Hemenway Auditorium of the Martha Miller Center for Global Communication.  Participants will include Aiuto; Joshua Banner and Susanna Childress of Ordinary Neighbors; and various Hope students.

Aiuto will present reflections on worship music on Thursday, Nov. 4, at 9:30 a.m. in room B16 in Dimnent Memorial Chapel.

The Welcome Wagon, which will be performing during the January Veritas Forum, consists of Aiuto and his wife Monique, who execute a genre of gospel music that is refreshingly plain. Their hymns are modest and melodic takes on a vast history of sacred song traditions, delivered with the simple desire to know their Maker - and to know each other - more intimately.

Vito was born in Tecumseh, and attended WesternMichiganUniversity where he developed a love for writing poetry.  His first book of poems, "Self-Portrait as Jerry Quarry," was published by New Issues Press in 2002.  A self-described agnostic, Vito experienced a spiritual conversion at the age of 20 and soon after enrolled at Princeton Theological Seminary to study theology and prepare for ordained ministry. Currently he is the senior pastor of Resurrection Presbyterian Church, a church he planted in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, N.Y., in 2005.

Raised on a farm, by a gentleman farmer father and choir teacher mother, in the same small town as Vito, Monique moved to New York City after high school to study art, first at the Cooper Union (BFA), then Columbia University (MFA).  Since then she has worked as a pre-school teacher, craftmaker for Martha Stewart, and as a mother.  She also serves as the Welcome Wagon's resident visual artist.

The Welcome Wagon began as husband and wife singing in the privacy of their home.  Having little to no previous musical experience or training, Vito purchased a guitar with the desire to sing hymns with his family.  With Monique accompanying on toy glockenspiel or harmonica, the two would amble through old hymnals, psalters and prayerbooks. Their inability to read music was no big issue; Vito simply made up new tunes to old words.

While their most familiar venue was (and is) their living room, the Welcome Wagon have been periodically coaxed to small stages at bars, parties, and seminaries throughout the New York City area, often joined by friends on upright bass, drums, piano, and banjo.  These intimate arrangements preserve the delicate nature of the Welcome Wagon's identity.

But there is another Welcome Wagon, the one that can be heard on their debut album, "Welcome to the Welcome Wagon."  This version of the band retains the heart and soul of pastor and his wife singing together, but dresses them up in the transcendent musical vestments of Hope graduate Sufjan Stevens, who produced and helped arrange the record.

The collaboration between Stevens and The Welcome Wagon began in 2001 with their appearance on the Asthmatic Kitty compilation "To Spirit Back the Mews" (2001), debuting the first song they ever wrote and recorded, "There is a Fountain Filled with Blood." Since that time they have been patiently recording an album of hymns, pop covers, and folksy originals with their friend and Brooklyn neighbor.  But it was the nativity of that first song which established their pattern of work together: husband and wife write and arrange songs with the architecture of a country chapel, while Stevens (as latter-day Christopher Wren) designs and attaches flying buttresses, soaring spires and reliquaries, gargoyles, gryphons and cherubs dotting the façade. Somehow this unlikely partnership has produced a sublime addition to that genre called "church music."

Admittedly, for a gospel duo, there's far less soul than sweet sincerity in the casual songs of the Welcome Wagon. Vito and his wife are unabashedly Midwestern, ordinary and uncool.  But this is precisely what sets them apart from the standard fare of contemporary liturgical music. It doesn't feign emotion; it doesn't pander to stylistic pretensions; it doesn't pretend to be anything other than what it is: the result of countless, informal social exchanges between friends. A home-cooked meal followed by a few microphones taped to folding chairs. A family gathering, a summary of happy noises, and a room crowded with familiar faces. Sure, there are showy guitar riffs and piano codas and harmonica solos, a rowdy chorus, an imposing flourish of brass instruments like wartime canons. But at the heart of it - if you really listen carefully - there's just a pastor and his wife tentatively singing in the quiet privacy of their own home.

The college's eighth biennial Veritas Forum will take place on Thursday-Saturday, Jan. 13-15, and will examine the topic "True Community True Selves: Exploring True Community in a Virtual World."  The mission overview for this year's forum notes:

"Perhaps no other human longing is more powerful than our desire for true friendship and true community. While ever-changing technologies provide instant connection with others, we often suspect that connection and community are not the same thing.  While information abounds online, intimacy eludes us.  We struggle even to maintain a sense of personal identity in the face of an avalanche of insistent marketing, must-have products and impersonal branding.  What is required at this cultural moment in order to cultivate true communities and to interact authentically with others and in our increasingly virtual world?  How can we experience authentic friendship, stable relationships, and an identity that was not manufactured for us?  Simply put, where do we find true selves and true communities?  Please join us as these and related questions are thoughtfully explored in light of the enduring truth of the Christian gospel during the 2011 Hope College Veritas Forum."

The Veritas Forum began at Harvard University in 1992 as a way to get students to think about what the school was founded upon: the Veritas, or truth, of Jesus Christ. Since then, dozens of campuses in the United States and abroad have emulated the Harvard model and held forums of their own.

The Hope Veritas Forum is designed to include the arts, ideas, theology and popular culture, so as to listen to how God works in the lives of writers, musicians, social activists, educators and artists. This forum has run every two years since its 1997 debut on campus.

The event will include a variety of opportunities for students to share creative work related to this year's theme.

Both poetry and visual art will be featured in an "Opus Veritas Edition."  Written works and photographs of works should be submitted for consideration to opus@hope.edu, by Sunday, Nov. 14.

There will be poetry and visual-art contests, each featuring a $50 prize.  Up to four entries per writer may be submitted to the poetry contest at opus@hope.edu.  The judging will be by Dr. Pablo Peschiera, assistant professor of English.  Artists submitting work to the visual-arts contest should contact William Mayer, professor of art.  The entry deadline for both contests is Monday, Jan. 10.

Original performance-art pieces in a variety of media (music, dance choreography, short film, theatrical vignettes) will be featured in "8 Minutes Max" on Saturday, Jan. 15, at the Knickerbocker Theatre immediately before The Welcome Wagon performs.  Auditions will be held on Thursday, Dec. 9.  Additional information may be obtained by contacting Joshua Banner of the campus ministries staff.

Dimnent Memorial Chapel is located at 277 College Ave., on College Avenue at 12th Street.  The Martha Miller Center for Global Communication is located at 257 Columbia Ave., at the corner of Columbia Avenue and 12th Street.